Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Yogis, divers, runners, and most folks practising any strength or cardio-based activity will be utilising their breath to enhance their performance. But it doesn’t stop there, breathwork is a cost-effective mental health practice. In this article, I’ll take you behind the closed doors of the therapy room so that you, too, can learn a breathing practice designed to negate the daily stress you experience.
Wearing a pink paisley shirt flowing in a traditional boho style, Jannie looks anything but relaxed. She is leaning back in the lounge chair with her shoulders rounded and her right thumb reflexively scratching the tip of her index finger: an unconscious and soothing pattern for fidgety hands. I can just make out that Jannie's chest is moving up and down fairly quickly and shallowly, indicating a quick respiration rate in her upper chest. I start to mirror this in my breathing pattern and reflect that my stomach feels tight and that a sense of being on edge has developed.
"I always feel like that," she defeatedly states. Though this is not a surprise for either of us, an overwhelming sense of anxiety in the context of chronic stress is precisely what we have been addressing in Jannie's therapy sessions.
I instruct Jannie to place one hand on her chest and the other on her abdomen and to notice what she feels. Jannie shares that she only feels her chest moving.
A person with a hand on their chest and a hand on their belly engaged in diaphragmatic breathing
Watching a baby breathing, you see their belly go up and down. Every breath into their belly. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, as the contraction of the diaphragm allows the deepening of the breath. It is a practice that can help decrease the symptoms of stress and anxiety, both psychological and biologically, such as cortisol levels.
However, it isn't natural to diaphragmatically breathe this under stress. Fighting or fleeing requires you to have your abdomen engaged. The more time your body has spent under SNS control, the more normal chest breathing feels. So your diaphragm becomes patterned into this restricted range; your abdominal muscles are used to being 'on.' Beyond this, you likely heard the term 'suck it in' at some point in your formative years. Such unhelpful societal pressure further tugs us away from natural, healthful breathing. Meaning that diaphragmatic breathing sometimes needs to be relearned.
I explained all of this to Jannie, and it resonated. So we spent some time practising diaphragmatic breathing in and out by way of her nose.
Nasal breathing is another interesting evolutionary element. You're designed to breathe through your nose. The hairs and mucus are a natural filtration system. It is a survival response (fight or flight) to breathe through your mouth. Because in these situations, you need to get extra oxygen into your muscles, even if it is not 'filtered'.
Now Jannie is practising diaphragmatic breaths through her nose. So we move to the third element; I guide Jannie in slowing her exhale. While you can feel like you need more and more air when you are overwhelmed, increasing oxygen levels can intensify body-based feelings of panic. Your exhale can balance oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in a manner conducive to relaxation. A low, slow flow. You can learn more about the psychoneuroimmunological (PNI) systems affected by your breath in my previous post here.
I offer Jannie between-session projects whereby she'll work on breathing exercises daily. However, I know that even if I did not, cultivating this breath awareness will likely result in biophysiological shifts in her breathing pattern.
It's the same for you. Having read this article, I know you'll start paying more attention to your breath and breathing pattern. Perhaps even shifting the form and rhythm of your breath. However, given the role breath can play in your mind-body health, you might like to invest in a more formal breathing practice.
Starting Your Own Practice
There are a multitude of breathing practices designed to elicit different physiological and psychological states. For example, you can breathe for increased energy, to enhance attention, or to calm and soothe. Given the high levels of stress so many are experiencing and the adverse PNI effects of chronic stress, I suggest you might start with a practice focused on eliciting your relaxation response.
- Sit in a comfortable chair with both feet flat on the floor. Alternatively, you can lie down with any support you might need.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your upper abdomen (below your rib cage). You intend to have the hand on your chest stay still with this breathing exercise while the hand on your abdomen moves.
- Take an inhale through your nose, drawing the breath down towards your abdomen to pull your diaphragm down.
- Slowly draw your abdomen back in, allowing the diaphragm to draw back up.
- Repeat this cycle five to 10 times. You can try extending the duration of your exhale. For instance, you might start with a 4-second inhale to a 4-second exhale, moving to a rate of 4 to 5, then 4 to 6.
- Remember: .
Another well-established option is to pair your breath with movement. For example, you can pair your breath with the hand movements involved in washing your dishes, with your footsteps when walking, or with mindful body movements, like yoga. The intention in these practices is to let your breath lead your movement. In short, let your low, slow breath inspire your wellbeing and expire your (chronic) stress.